Istanbul—As Turkey’s April 16 referendum results rolled in on a flat-screen TV in the downtown Istanbul office of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the mood of party activists turned from disbelief to frustration, exasperation, and fear. They had spent months rallying opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to change Turkey to a presidential system that would concentrate more power in his hands.
Now they watched their nightmare unfolding on the screen: a narrow, 51.4 percent victory for Erdogan in a poll filled with voting irregularities. In a room where pictures of Fidel Castro; Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); and left-wing Turkish revolutionaries from the 1970s hang on the walls, the activists reflected on the months of state intimidation, harassment, and arrests that obstructed their party’s campaign.
Kivanc Eliacik, a former labor organizer who currently works for the HDP’s international-relations department, was dejected but not surprised, as his fears of electoral manipulation seemed to play out when the state news agency declared only a narrow lead for the “No” vote in Istanbul. The No campaign had expected a considerably larger margin of victory in this vast cosmopolitan metropolis of 15 million people.
“They have just called the results for all of Istanbul, while not a single poll here in Besiktas has reported its results,” said Eliacik that Sunday, referring to the district that was a No stronghold. In the HDP’s own tally of the Besiktas poll, 100,000 of its roughly 125,000 residents voted against the proposed changes. The state news agency at one point declared that over 90 percent of ballots had been counted, but it was contradicted when the elections commission announced it had only counted 70 percent of the votes.
Soon, both HDP representatives and the main opposition party, the liberal nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), were contesting the results and pointing to a rash of voting irregularities. Eliacik, who is in his late 30s, shuffled around the office, calling colleagues and calculating how best to express opposition to the declared results. He worried that the state crackdown on the HDP, which had already seen the jailing of its leaders, along with 13 parliamentarians and thousands of party activists, could expand. And he wondered if an intense post-referendum fight would best serve the interests of his party’s supporters in this oppressive climate.
Within hours, throngs of Erdogan’s conservative, religious, and nationalist backers gathered outside the president’s Istanbul home to celebrate victory. At the same time, in the streets below the Besiktas offices and across the Bosporus in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, thousands of No voters marched. Some banged pots and pans—an echo of, and homage to, the massive 2013 anti-government Gezi Park protests.
In the days that followed, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the referendum, said that because of an “un-level playing field” and other irregularities, the vote failed to adhere to international standards. Videos have emerged of people voting multiple times, ballots being stuffed, and votes being validated hours after they were supposed to be. However, the Turkish election commission—a majority of whose judges had been replaced by the government during the crackdown after last July’s failed army coup—upheld the results, rejecting opposition demands to rerun the vote. And President Trump phoned Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory without mentioning any of the problems with the poll.
“We do not consider these results legitimate and we don’t accept them,” Gulistan Kilic Kocyigit, a member of the HDP’s central committee and one of the co-chairs of HDK, the broader social movement that founded the party, told The Nation two days after the vote.
Despite widespread outrage and sporadic demonstrations since the night of the referendum, opposition parties have been cautious about calling their supporters to the streets. “We don’t want to stick our heads out by ourselves,” argued Kocyigit. “If the HDP comes out and calls people to take the streets on our own, then we will be criminalized.”
For the HDP, especially, there is palpable fear of being not only isolated but smashed by a government that just extended a state of emergency that’s hung over the country since the coup attempt. Indeed, coming on the heels of an intense war that flattened Kurdish cities in 2015–16, the referendum is often seen by Kurds in existential terms.
“Now Erdogan is asking the population to be involved in destroying the Kurds,” says Musrattin Bas. The 55-year-old construction worker moved to Tarlabasi, a working-class Kurdish neighborhood in Istanbul, after being burned out of his village near the southeastern city of Mardin by Turkish forces in the 1980s.
Human-rights groups have accused the Turkish government of destroying 3,000 villages during its campaign to stamp out the PKK in the 1980s and ’90s. In the renewed war of 2015–16, Ankara’s air force and artillery reduced the cities of Cizre and Nusaybin to rubble, along with Diyarbakir’s old city. “Since the state of emergency, there are more police in the neighborhood, more checks and more arrests,” Bas says, sipping tea in a café where Ataturk’s picture looks over the patrons (Ataturk’s nationalism has often been the justification for denying Kurds their national rights).
The scars of the recently reignited conflict certainly reduced Kurdish voter turnout. According to Kocyigit, participation in the heavily Kurdish southeast was smaller than it had been in 2015 elections. “Those who have been displaced or are in cities [that were] under siege were unable vote,” Kocyigit said. “Even though we tried to get them to the voting centers, many no longer had addresses or proper papers to reregister at the polling station.”
“There are close to 10,000 people in jail right now, and every morning we wake up with news of detentions and house raids. Of course it affected the campaign,” says HDP representative and leading party activist Ayse Berktay. “Two days before a big rally you see the whole committee of organizers detained,” she adds.
Berktay speaks from experience. The middle-aged translator, author, and lifelong socialist activist from Istanbul was released in 2013 after two and half years in pretrial detention; she is accused of membership in the banned, PKK-linked Kurdish Communities Union and of “planning to stage demonstrations aimed at destabilizing the state.”
Even as those proceedings against her were continuing, last August, amid the post-coup purges, her passport was canceled and she was charged with terrorism relating to her left-wing, feminist, and pro-Kurdish columns for the Kurdish-focused Istanbul daily Ozgur Gundem. Five other colleagues of hers from the paper are facing the same charges, including editor in chief Asli Erdogan. The paper was forcibly closed the same month the government purge expanded beyond suspected supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamist preacher whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the putsch.
“They want to put Kurds out of sight and off the table everywhere. The old nationalist attitudes haven’t changed,” Berktay contends, noting that pressure on the HDP is greater than on other opposition parties. She says that Erdogan “sees himself as free to negotiate with the CHP but wants to eliminate us without closing down the party.”
Sitting in an eclectic bookshop tucked away from Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s most prominent pedestrian walkway, where towering posters of Erdogan and “Vote YES” billboards look down on shoppers, she is calm and speaks softly, but with measured rage.
“They have been banning our rallies,” Berktay says, about HDP-staged campaign events, especially those in Kurdish areas. “We are having to campaign under the conditions of a state of emergency, which applies to everyone—especially us—except the Yes campaign.”
Throughout the referendum campaign, Kurdish prisoners, including HDP leaders, have been on hunger strikes. Although the strikes were not directly connected to the referendum, they did expose the government’s human-rights violations. Demanding an end to PKK leader Ocalan’s isolation from the world, the cessation of military operations in the southeast, and a halt to torture and abuse in prison, the 184 striking prisoners, spread across 20 facilities, have exemplified Kurdish discontent with Erdogan.
“It’s very hard. I remember the hunger strikes when I was in prison,” says Berktay, reflecting on earlier actions she took part in. The prisoners’ determination to continue fighting despite being sealed off from the world, despite their increasing pangs of hunger—some have been on strike for more than 60 days—resonates with Berktay’s own story of resistance.
The referendum campaign came after months of vast purges of the military, police force, government, judiciary, civil service, media, schools, and universities. Over 110,000 people have been detained, nearly 50,000 have received criminal charges, and around 130,000 have been fired or suspended from their jobs. Some expected the crackdown to ease off after Erdogan’s victory, but ten days after the referendum, more than 1,000 alleged Gulen supporters were arrested, with warrants issued for 2,200 others. And—perhaps emboldened by the vote results, Trump’s congratulations, or both—a day earlier Erdogan had ordered air strikes against PKK strongholds in Iraq and Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria.
The repression initially focused on the followers of Gulen, whose broad Islamist movement was once allied with Erdogan but whom the president now accuses of plotting last summer’s coup. That net quickly widened, however, eventually including Kurds, leftists, and even some establishment republican critics. The dragnet focused in particular on the HDP, the third-largest party in Parliament after the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the CHP, as well as the media.
The case of Ahmet Sik, an author and investigative journalist, along with that of his colleagues at the secularist and liberal nationalist newspaper Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest, illustrates the current reporting climate. Sik had spent a year in pretrial detention in 2011 because of a book he was writing about the Gulenist movement’s influence on state institutions. The book was an unpublished manuscript at the time of his arrest; only later, while he was in prison, was it published. In those days, Erdogan was still allied with Gulen and cracking down on secularist opposition in the military. He wanted to protect his alliance with Gulen and was working with the movement to silence his critics. The case against Sik was lumped into the “Ergenekon” trials—a series of high-profile court cases against the alleged clandestine Ergenekon group, seen as a branch of the old secular Kemalist “deep state,” which was accused of plotting to create chaos and overthrow Erdogan’s Islamist government.
In the wake of last summer’s coup attempt, and amid Erdogan’s final fracture with the Gulenists after years of growing animosity with his former allies, Sik now stands out as a reminder of that once cozy relationship. When I interviewed him in the days following the failed coup, he spoke firmly against both military interventions in politics as well as the Erdogan government’s crackdown against his enemies. “The current government is against a republican era of human rights, but even that is better than what the military brings,” he told me as we sipped coffee at a trendy Istanbul sidewalk café.
Then, last December, state prosecutors arrested Sik again. This time, he was charged with creating “propaganda of terrorist organizations,” because he’d been reporting on an armed underground group, the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C). At the same time, his book on Gulen—the same one that had gotten him into hot water in 2011—was now being used by the government as evidence in conspiracy trials against the Gulenists.
“Ahmet is paying the price for being a true journalist in Turkey,” the editor in chief of Cumhuriyet, Murat Sabuncu, tells me. “They have tried to connect [most of the journalists] to Gulen, but they accused Ahmet of affiliating with DHKP-C because of some stories he wrote,” contends Sabuncu, who is one of 19 staff members at the paper who were also recently indicted, accused of being members of the Gulenist movement.
Sitting in his paper’s office—which has more pictures on its walls of Turkey’s staunchly secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, than it does of the paper’s own big news scoops—Sabuncu smirks at the self-evident absurdity of the government’s accusation that his staunchly secularist paper had been plotting with a religious movement. “Cumhuriyet is a symbol of the republic. It is as old as the republic, so an attack on it is also an attack on the values of the republic as a whole,” he says.
Although the referendum was officially a decision about whether to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance, both supporters and opponents treated the ballot as a referendum on Erdogan’s rule. To Erdogan’s supporters, this vote has been more about validating the president’s policies and his image than about who should have the power to appoint the cabinet and the majority of Constitutional Court judges, and to dissolve Parliament. To his opponents, this was a vote against Erdogan’s quest to consolidate his power, sideline the opposition, and reshape the nation in his image.
In Istanbul’s conservative, religious, middle-class neighborhood of Eyup—a bastion of support for the governing AKP—the coalition of religious voters and conservative nationalists that Erdogan has brought together to reshape the state is energized. On a pedestrian promenade next to the mosque, I talked to Mehmet Oztel, who was eager to give Erdogan more power because of his national infrastructure projects but also because of his hard line against the Kurds. “I have found peace in Erdogan’s time,” he said, endorsing the government’s devastating war against the PKK. That conflict was reignited after Kurds voted en masse for the HDP in the June 2015 election, which denied Erdogan’s party a majority. Interestingly, the 61-year-old truck driver’s views are far closer to those of the hard-line Nationalist Action Party (MHP) than to Erdogan’s traditionally religious base.
Since last summer’s coup attempt, the MHP—which often glorifies Turkey’s past military coups—has been in a crisis over how to respond to Erdogan’s increasingly harsh militarism and adaptation of traditionally secular nationalist symbols. The MHP’s leader supported a Yes vote, but an estimated 80 percent of its base voted No.
When the government declared the state of emergency last summer, Erdogan’s supporters took to the streets and city squares, carrying his picture alongside ones of Ataturk. In fiery speeches broadcast around the country, Erdogan reshaped his image; he was presented by supporters as Turkey’s second founding father, a leader who would bring the nation back together, routing both internal and external enemies. That kind of rhetoric won Oztel’s devotion. “This vote is like giving approval to Erdogan’s progress; it’s refreshing the blood,” he said.
At the same time, Erdogan has mobilized his base on the promise of using religious values to shape the state. “We want him to lead, and only him to rule,” said Malek Kera. The conservatively dressed 18-year-old student, upbeat and eager to paint Erdogan in heroic terms, spoke with me as she handed out pamphlets for the Yes campaign to throngs of people strolling down the pedestrian street in Eyup. It was the first election she will be able to vote in; for the vast majority of her life, Erdogan has led the country. As someone who believes strongly in public religious life, she has seen increasing opportunities to express her faith in a country that had previously strictly enforced public secularism. “He is living the real Islam,” she said glowingly of Erdogan.
Erdogan’s referendum discourse was tailored to the perspectives of people like Oztel and Kera. Alongside Erdogan’s less observant, more nationalist constituents, women with hijabs marched into stadiums around the country in choreographed displays of diversity for rallies in which the president spoke of the need for a strong leader to confront Turkey’s security threats.
But Erdogan’s many years in power, combined with the purge’s brutality against his former allies in the Gulenist movement, have shrunk support among his traditional base. Chatting with friends in a café in the trendy, secular Cihanger neighborhood, 30-year-old Halie Tekes appears, at a glance, to be a liberal hipster secularist who would have always opposed Erdogan. Yet the TV screenwriter with a sculpted beard once admired and supported the president. Having grown up in a religious family, he describes how his sisters couldn’t attend university until the AKP government removed the ban on head scarves. But the repression has soured Tekes on the AKP, and he strongly opposes giving Erdogan more power. “Erdogan used to be like Moses,” said Tekes coyly, three days before the referendum vote (the fourth night of Passover). “Now he is like Pharaoh.”
For those most likely to feel the harshest consequences of Erdogan’s consolidation of power, this referendum has been about trying to deny legitimacy to what they expect will be a new wave of crackdowns.
No posters and HDP flags crisscross the bustling streets of the working-class Alevi neighborhood of Gazi (the Alevis are a minority Shia sect in Turkey). For years the neighborhood has been a site of regular clashes between poor, left-wing youth and police, and there is sympathy here for the DHKP-C. The impact of the government’s neoliberal economic policies is sorely felt in Gazi, and the violence inflicted by security forces has been a fact of life since 1980s, when a military junta ruled the country.
In a café across from the main Alevi mosque, young men play cards on tables that often have the latest issues of the DHKP-C’s magazine strewn about. They chat about the referendum and how the community is strongly opposed to Erdogan. While many of them participate in the ferocious clashes with police and sympathize with the DHKP-C, they have been campaigning on behalf of the CHP’s No campaign rather than that of the more left-wing HDP. Despite strong class grievances in Gazi, the Alevi community, which makes up about 20 percent of Turkey’s Muslims, has a long and complicated alliance with the CHP. For many of the young men in the café, plugging into electoral politics means connecting with the institutions their parents put faith in.
“We are worried that the referendum will result in more pressure on Gazi,” says Erkan Ak, a 26-year-old engineering student who has lived his whole life in the district. “This referendum won’t leave space for political resistance.” As the discussion becomes more animated and others in the café join in, two armored personnel carriers with Turkish flags drive by, the police inside them peering into the café through the APC’s caged windows.
Despite the widespread stifling of dissent, the HDP, labor, and other left-leaning activists are calling for mass action to support workers and protest the referendum results on May Day. That will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1977 massacre of workers at a May Day rally in Taksim Square. Amid the authoritarian crackdown, the HDP seems keen to make the connection between Erdogan’s consolidation of power now and the darker periods in Turkey’s repressive past.